There isn’t much to unpack in Chhalaang. It is a simple story with a simple message that doesn’t really offer anything new and seems to just be included in this outdated script to keep up with the times.
Montu, or as he prefers to be known, Mahinder (Rajkumar Rao), is an unambitious, egotistical PT teacher in a Government school in Haryana. He is a proud member of the local anti-Romeo squad, Sanskriti Dal, along with his friends, Dimpy (Jatin Sarna), a local sweet shop owner, and Shukla (Saurabh Shukla), a teacher who taught Montu himself.
One one of his routine rounds of a local park, Montu and his fellow goons harass an older married couple. Montu’s life changes when finds himself smitten to the new Computers teacher in the school, Neelima (Nushrat Bharucha), who happens to be the daughter of the couple that Montu harassed.
Montu’s position as the PT teacher and standing with Neelima is threatened when a qualified university graduate coach, Inder Mohan Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), is appointed as his senior coach. When his ego is hurt, Montu challenges Singh to a competition comprising of any three sports where teams coached by the two coaches would go head to head. The winner of the competition would get to keep the job. What follows is the clash between these two teams.
The biggest strength of Chhalaang is its exceptional ensemble cast made of industry veterans as well as established newcomers.
Rajkumar Rao somehow makes the egotistical, narrow-minded character of Montu endearing. He the sole reason the film works as intended. His character is deeply flawed but Rao’s charm makes it a treat to watch him.
Nushrat Bharucha might be the weakest in the bunch but is still great as Neelima. She is smart, self-possessed and unafraid. She calls a spade a spade. She is the moral anchor of the film.
Saurabh Shukla is phenomenal as Shukla, Montu’s mentor-cum-teacher-cum-friend. He plays a jubilant, supportive character who is young at heart. His punchlines hit as hard as his sentimental dialogues. His chemistry with Rao is especially incredible.
Jatin Sarna, who is primarily known for his role as Bunty in Sacred Games, plays Dimpy, who does not get enough screen time but manages to create an impact nonetheless. It would have been very easy to write off his character as comic relief, instead, he has sufficient depth as well.
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, as IM Singh, Ila Arun as Principal Usha Ghelot, Baljinder Kaur as Montu’s father and Naman Jain as Bablu, Montu’s brother were also excellent in their supporting roles.
When the cast is outstanding, a lot of pressure is lifted off the script and direction. This is the case in Chhalaang. The cast manages to land a lot of jokes and punchlines purely due to their excellent delivery.
Usually, such simple films don’t have much to offer through its visuals but in Chhalaang, the cinematography by Eeshit Narain is surprisingly great.
That along with the excellent set design by Shashank Tere with his keen eye for colour makes this film visually pleasing to watch.
After projects like Scam 1992 (2020), Aligarh (2015), Shahid (2012) and City Lights (2014), Hasal Mehta has been associated with landmark cinema that makes you think unlike the majority of popcorn films made in Bollywood. After that array of productions, Chhalaang seems like a major disappointing step down for Hansal Mehta.
This film is surprisingly progressive for a film written by Luv Ranjan. But the film’s progressive message seems like an afterthought. Themes of feminism seemed shoehorned in and seem totally out of character for Montu
In fact, almost all the characters in the film are inconsistent. Starting with Rao’s Montu who suddenly has a change of heart mid-film and becomes a progressive, secure flagbearer of feminism and all things right.
The pairing of Montu and Neelima also makes no sense seeing that they have nothing in common and their values and beliefs are in total opposition. For all the talk of feminism, Bharucha’s character is reduced to a mere trophy that the winner gets to take.
Chhalaang wants us to root for the insecure, presumptuous Montu but never explains why. Singh is clearly a more qualified coach who worked hard to get to his position, unlike Montu who was handed the job after a phone call from his father to the principal. He is also more secure, sportsmanlike and aims to work from inside the system to make the students in government schools healthier and fitter.
And of course, the film has Karate Kid like montages where the students train through to mundane tasks. This worn-out cliche needs to die.
Chhalaang is also a victim to exposition through music. Chhalaang, like most Bollywood films, spells out every emotion and subsequent change in emotion through music. This is totally unnecessary and in fact, makes the performances of the cast seem overboard.
This film is essentially a coming of age story, but it takes far too long to get to the point. At a runtime of 136 minutes, the film is at least 40 minutes too long.
Chhalaang is a formulaic film that has the usual suspects of a Bollywood film; some songs, a love story, some sentimental scenes and some laughs along the way.
If you’re not tired of the same recycled film, Chhalaang is worth a watch, especially for the remarkable performance of the ensemble cast.